The announcement of Malcolm Turnbull’s frontbench is becoming a bit of a saga. “24-48 hours” was how long he reckoned it would take on Tuesday morning, but now there’s talk of being delayed into next week.

No one Crikey has spoken to is sure why.

There’s speculation that Nelson supporters like Tony Smith and Bruce Billson won’t survive, but it’s not terribly well-informed. However, Bob Baldwin, the larger-than-life MP from up Raymond Terrace way, appears to have accepted he won’t be remaining on the front bench. He hasn’t exactly set the world alight as a shadow minister, but it’s hard, even for someone as big as Baldwin, to attract attention as shadow for defence science and personnel.

The ascension of Julie Bishop to the shadow Treasury position appears a fait accompli. This is not a good move. The position is the one Turnbull must get absolutely right if the Coalition are to be competitive, given economic management is going to dominate politics for the time being.

Bishop has not impressed while marking Julia Gillard — admittedly a tough ask — and she is one of the reasons the Government is still able to hammer the Coalition with WorkChoices.

Bishop’s good at glaring at the Government ranks while at the Dispatch Box, but holds no fear for them and Wayne Swan won’t lose any sleep over her. She gives the impression she doesn’t want to have a dig, and she has no economics background — before politics she was a successful lawyer at Clutz in Perth. In the event Tanner or Gillard replaces Swan as Treasurer, both would chew her up.

The best candidate for shadow Treasurer is pretty simple. Andrew Robb is an economist with an extensive business background in addition to his stint at the NFF and then running the Liberal Party. He’s not exactly the most aggressive parliamentary performer but he’s had foreign affairs, which is Rudd’s forte, and still managed to score some hits on the Government.

In any event, aggro isn’t not what’s needed in the job. Peter Costello (now he might make a reasonable fist of the job too) reckoned Simon Crean was his best opponent out of the many shadow Treasurers he faced, and Crean is not the most engaging presence at the Dispatch Box.

The job calls for substance, for someone who will be respected by business and reassure voters the economy would be in sound hands in the event of a change of government. Given it doesn’t look like economic and financial stability is going to return any time soon, who out of Bishop or Robb presents an impression of greater solidity?

IR is the other problematic portfolio. The Government will continue to exploit WorkChoices and that will ramp up as the election nears. The notion of Joe Hockey moving back into the portfolio had all the appeal and logic of putting Kevin Andrews back there. They need someone who can get under Julia Gillard’s skin, if possible. One of the more annoying men down the end of the frontbench — Peter Dutton (apparently bound for Finance) or Steve Ciobo — might be the best candidate to at least try to undermine Gillard’s dominance in the Chamber.

The new frontbench will have a very thin look about it. With Nelson and Chris Ellison gone, it only leaves Hockey, Abbott, Bishop, Minchin and Coonan as the veterans of the Howard years. Turnbull will have to make the most effective use of limited resources. That someone like the appalling Connie Fierravanti-Wells is being mooted for a frontbench slot indicates he might struggle to do so.

Meantime Turnbull has his own staff to put together. Peta Credlin, who worked for Nelson, is acting Chief of Staff. Crikey ran a hostile tip about her the other day. She’s a whip cracker whose style hasn’t endeared her to some Liberal staffers, but she brought an extensive understanding of parliamentary and governmental processes to Nelson’s office and she ran social policy for him — about the only area where he managed to get some traction. She also provides a link to the Victorian party, and the party head office through Brian Loughnane.

Of course, Turnbull’s biggest advantage in all of this is that, unlike his predecessor, he doesn’t have an outsized ego right behind him waiting for him to implode. At least, not yet.

Peter Fray

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